Sometimes the key to dominating a billion-dollar market is a ridiculously simple idea. A prime example here is Tinder. With its swipe-and-match logic, it quickly became the gold standard for anyone looking for love or lust. But wherever one player reigns with a (pseudo) monopoly, others are lurking nearby, tinkering with new ideas to break up the status quo. OMR spoke to the makers of two next-gen matchmaking apps about why now is a good time for newcomers, which marketing strategies they’re employing to emerge from the shadows of Tinder and where they think they have an advantage over the king of the one night stand.
If you want to know the truth about something, they say, ask a kid. For Daniel Cheaib, co-founder of Feels, the truth came from the “kids” entrusted to redesign the Paris-based dating app—and was instrumental in defining what Feels is. Anytime he described his product, Cheaib says he usually plugged the perks with some variation of a worn-out theme on enabling authentic relationships. The response and reaction to the dime-store description was always the same: “Everyone says that—What sets Feels apart from the others?” Kids…
Cheaib and his trio of co-founders would then explain that Feels is different than Tinder, because Feels focuses on videos—and that there is no algorithm that compares profiles. But they still had yet to find a better way of capturing and communicating what they had. Then came the outside perspective and the eureka moment from some a bunch of 20-somethings hired to rebrand the app.
“Too cool to match”
Hired to rebrand the app, Paris gen-z ad agency Socialclub not only got rid of the old red-orange CI but came up with a claim that captured the essence of Feels. A claim that contained neither the word authentic, nor the word relationship. Instead one that gets to the heart of the company mindset: “Too cool to match.” “I never in a million years would have come up with that,” says Cheaib. “That’s something that could only someone of that generation.” The first time he heard the claim was also the first time he truly knew what Feels really was.
In contrast to Tinder, Feels’ users do not swipe left or right on any profiles. On Feels, it’s all about scrolling vertically through profiles, which, instead of profile pics and sexy-time slogans about one’s persona, are full-screen videos and text plates with answers to innocent questions, e.g. in which TV series world would you most like to live. Users can pimp up their selfie clips with stickers and others can comment on videos with emojis or reach out to each other directly. There is no matching logic. The more active a user is, the more visible their profile is in the feed. Feels is a bright, fast-moving and direct place; a TikTok for dating.
The booming social network is a common point of reference for a new generation of dating apps. Snack, too, has taken a page from Tiktok with the Vancouver, Canada-based app focusing on a video feed with interaction among users taking place via likes and comments. “We’re replicating the social media experience that Gen Z is most comfortable with,” says Kim Kaplan, founder and CEO of Snack. “Users,” she says, “are encouraged you to share the same content that you are putting up on Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok.”
Different than Feels, Snack does have a matching function that once a match ensures that more of your match’s videos appear in your feed and matched users can DM users directly from the video. The other key shift from Tinder and Bumble lies in the comment function, which according to Kaplan “allows people to casually interact with one another’s content and start the conversation more naturally.”
Dating workaround on Tiktok
Kaplan got the idea for Snack while scrolling through Tiktok. “I saw a video of a woman pointing to her name, age, location and zodiac sign. I had this ah-ha moment and realized that she was trying to use TikTok to date.” With no location, no way to know who’s single or what their age is, TikTok is not built to be a dating platform. “The song that went with that video trend had over 130,000 videos created that were all dating-related, and the hashtag single had over 13 billion views at the time – that was when I knew there was a massive opportunity,” recalls Kaplan.
Of course, you would think that the dominant market players would not just idly watch a couple of newcomers come in and shake up the dating game. But until very recently; that was almost exactly what they did. It was not until June 2021 that Tinder announced it would be shifting its focus to video in the future.
Tinder discovers Gen-Z
“Video gives Gen Z a new way to tell their authentic stories and represents the evolution of Tinder into a multi-dimensional experience that mirrors what dating looks like in 2021,” the press release states. And it sounds a bit as if the market’s most dominant player, who is not used to any serious competition, is trying to play down the fact that it nearly slept on the industry’s most dominant trend and to instead present itself as an innovator.
It’s reminiscent of a video that Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri recently tweeted out on why his app in the future would no longer be a photo-sharing app, but an entertainment platform revolving about video. While Mosseri did not say the move was motivated by Tiktok, he did name it a strong competitor.
Changing user behavior
Snack CEO Kim Kaplan does see parallels to Instagram: “When it launched, Tinder was the app that disrupted the status quo. But since then the needs and behavior of users have changed. In the same way that our Instagram interactions have moved from static feed images to stories and reels, people are craving a similar experience with their dating apps,” Kaplan says.
Feels, too, keeps tabs on what Tinder is—or is not—doing. “When we launched three years ago, one of the questions we asked ourselves was ‘what if Tinder starts doing the same thing tomorrow?,’” says Daniel Cheaib. This worst-case is finally reality, albeit with significant lag. And yet, Cheaib is not worried about the announcement. “I am not convinced that it will work for them,” he says. “People are used to the way Tinder works.”
Tinder dominant with the younger generation as well
If you believe the figures from Match Group, the data strongly suggests that Tinder will come out on top in the battle for gen z users. Zoomers account for over 50 percent of its users, according to the Tinder press release accompanying the video update. With an estimated total user base of 66 million, the number of zoomers before introducing video already dwarfs the total number of users the newcomers have combined.
Feels currently claims 150,000 users, most of which are based in its home market of France according to Chaib. However, the app has shown promising growth and is an indicator of how the newcomers can close the gap. “It took three years for us to get the first 50,000 users. For the next 50,000, we needed three weeks,” Chaib says. And the reason for the growth spike was the rebrand in April 2021. “Your product consists of both the features it entails and the story you tell,” says Cheaib.
“The anti-dating app”
When the first version of the app launched three years ago, the founders threw a party and invited their 500 guests to try out Feels, which gave them an average age of 30—“exactly our age,” says Cheaib. Over time, however, they realized that the younger the users were, the more heavily they used it. Apparently, they were open to sharing videos of themselves and willing to go through the relatively long onboarding process. “Gradually the average user age shrank to 25. And soon it became apparent that our target group was no longer people like us,” Cheaib says. So they went all in, changed the design and overhauled the brand experience and repositioned Feels as the “anti-dating app.”
Cheaib says that of course the focus is still on dating, but that there was positive feedback from placing the focus on interaction and forgoing matching. Within a few days, the average age dropped further. “Currently, we’re at 19 to 20.” Cheaib also says that the gender split—an essential dynamic for a dating app—is now 40/60, women to men. If accurate, that would be a fantastic split. Cheaib calls the decision to entrust the rebrand to a younger design agency “the best we’ve ever made.”
Coming of age in the Tinder universe
For Kim Kaplan, it was clear from the beginning that she wanted to aim Snack at zoomers. She received input on the name from a group of gen-z techies and investors, who also gave her the idea for the company pretzel logo. Snack is not the first dating platform Kaplan has worked on; she spent time at Plenty of Fish, where she was responsible for product and marketing. During her time there, the site increased its users fourfold and revenue increased from 10 to more than 100 million dollars. After Match Group acquired Plenty of Fish in 2015, Kaplan stayed on board in the company for a while, where she worked for Tinder among others.
That experience taught her which strategies are effective at acquiring new target groups. For Snack that means aligning with Tiktok as much as possible. Although Kaplan doesn’t have numbers to back it up, her feeling is that one of the biggest factors contributing to the success of her app is that Snack was among the first partner apps to “use login with Tiktok.” Such third party integrations enable users to transfer their TikTok videos directly into the dating app.
However, TikTok is not the easiest platform for dating apps to boost brand visibility or awareness. Shortly before launching in February 2021, Snack set up a brand account on TikTok; it only counts 4300 followers at present. A few exceptions aside, the clips typically only generate a few hundred views. “We want the influencers we work with to showcase the authenticity of our app. We encourage them to create content that shows off their true selves and treat them as an extension of our marketing team.”
Feels also has a presence on social media. With the relaunch, however, Cheaib says that they discontinued all their activities on Instagram to focus on TikTok. A younger staff member acts as the face of the brand and the company has 66,000 followers. The reason that they have been decidedly more successful than Snack figures to be that Feels runs ads on TikTok. Cheaib says that ads have been responsible for nearly 40% of the daily growth of currently 1500 daily installs, in addition to new followers.
Where ambition takes you
“If your ambition is to eat into Tinder and Bumble’s market share you have to go to the US,” says Cheaib. For starters, Americans give new apps a try more frequently and have an average of four dating apps installed on their phone. The other plus to breaking through in the US is the clout that an app that has been a hit in the states has when expanding to Europe and other regions.
Cheaib declined to say exactly when the US launch would take place, only that it is a goal for the medium-term. The final go figures to be dependent on if and when the four founders are able to succeed in raising more capital than the 1.8 million it has thus far, which comes from the founders directly and a handful of angel investors. Cheaib says that prominent investors include the former European head of Bumble and professional French soccer player Blaise Matuidi.
No takers on paid packages
The premium Feels package, which, among other features, allows users to revisit profiles you’ve already scrolled through and boost profile visibility, does not figure to play a significant role for the time being. At 10 euros per week, 20 per month or 40 for three, the pricing structure is ambitious for an app aimed at gen z. While Cheaib is not a fan of the way Tinder prices its app, subscriptions only have a minor role at present.
What will be decisive in determining whether Snack and Feels succeed is something else entirely. Their functionality and branding will need to be robust enough to remain the preferred choice among zoomers after Tinder’s introduction of video. If not, they will not be able to grow fast enough to outpace the market leader. According to Cheaib, there is another factor that will impact how the story ends. He says that all the dating apps are like a club in New York, where pretty, styled up people congregate in masse. Where it’s all a bit superficial. “Feels on the other hand,” he says, “is more like a club in Berlin.” Here you need to be creative, share things that reflect your character. If you want to have a great time in these clubs, you need to be more than just a pretty face. A few years ago, you may have said to cool for Tinder.